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Give Me A Break:

Things To Think About When Structuring
Your Manuscript


Lori L. Lake
by Lori L. Lake

If you pick up any work of fiction written in the last century, you are likely to find the story broken into logical chunks that are "digestible" for the reader. Even James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (comprised of nearly 700 pages ending in the middle of a sentence and beginning on page one in the middle of that same ending sentence) is separated into parts, chapters, and paragraphs.

But why are there breaks in any work of fiction, and how does one decide where to put them?

The main purpose of scene breaks is to break up text in a logical, coherent way to enhance the reading experience. The main purpose of chapters is to break up text in a logical, coherent way to enhance the reading experience. The main purpose of parts is to break up text in a logical, coherent way to enhance the reading experience.

It sounds easy and logical (not to mention repetitive), doesn't it? And yet, many writers don’t utilize breaks in their work in ways that enhance the reading experience, and failing to do so makes a novel less pleasing and less polished.

How Do the Experts Address This Issue?

Perusal of scores of my favorite writing books reveals that few have much to say on this subject, and only three have any specific instructions. The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition (1.61), tells us: "Most prose works are divided into chapters, often, though not necessarily, of approximately the same length. Chapter titles should be similar in tone, if not in length. Each title should give a reasonable clue to what is in the chapter; whimsical titles in a serious book, for example, can be misleading. Many potential readers scan the table of contents to determine whether a book is worth their time (and money). Relatively short titles are preferable to long, ungainly ones, both for appearance on the page and for use in running heads" (p. 32).

This is so broad, so general, as to be almost useless, leaving the impression that there are no hard-and-fast "rules" for how to do this. So let’s explore the topic and see what conclusions can be made.

Back in the Olden Days

Reading works from one hundred or more years ago, one can see specific structural tactics in the writing of authors such as Hawthorne, Melville, Alcott, Austen, Dickens, and Cooper. Author David Morrell, in his book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing; A Novelist Looks at His Craft tells us: "Nineteenth century novels tended to have long chapters that felt like novels in miniature. With each new chapter, the reader had the sense that fresh machinery was being brought into place, that exposition was starting anew. Recent novels, influenced by the rapid pace of movies, tend to have shorter chapters, with greater speed from one to the other, avoiding exposition at the start of a scene, going straight to the purpose for the scene, then getting out of the scene and into the next without any denouement" (p. 78).

A 19th century example of this is Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women. Alcott broke the book into two parts, the first comprised of 23 chapters and the latter of 24, for a total of 47 chapters. Alcott wrote one chapter per day on this novel, and each segment was written almost like a little story in and of itself. Although events and themes did hearken back to the early sections, the chapter arrangement made the novel somewhat episodic. Some modern writers and teachers would say the 19th century writers produced highly structured novels—perhaps too structured—that by today’s adult standards lack variety and immediacy.

In the olden days, it wasn’t just chapters that tended to be long and self-contained. Paragraphs and sentences were longer, more languid, perhaps because readers without TV or radio had loads more time on their hands. I recall reading a few novels in college—mostly from the early to mid 20th century—where the author didn’t seem to employ any chapters, perhaps utilizing long parts instead. Maybe the breaks were there, but the story just went on and on. It felt like swimming from Australia to New Zealand, with never a break in sight for the reader. Having a chapter break would have been a good thing—a literal "break"—a chance to put the book down for a while and come back later after meals or chores or other obligations.

Times have changed, and modern readers have different expectations. Few outside of those in English literature classes want to read multitudes of long, circuitous sentences, nor do they want to open a 250 to 500 page book and find no breaks at all. Even being broken into, say, five or ten parts doesn’t seem very attractive. The vast majority of readers, you see, would like to have a periodic pause that refreshes. And besides, without the chapter ending or scene break, who knows where you stopped reading on the page?

The Case for Figuring Out Logical Breaks

Lawrence Block, in his marvelous book, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print, tells us this: "Some writers avoid chapter breaks because they don’t want to encourage the reader to pause in the course of their heart-pounding narrative. One might argue in reply that a story that’s all that gripping will hold its readers through a chapter break. In my own reading, I’ve found that chapterization tends to keep me reading. I tell myself I can stop in a few minutes, at the end of the next chapter, and I keep telling myself that until I’ve finished the book" (p. 156).

Chapter breaks—and the decision as to whether you name those chapters or not—are issues wrapped up in how you structure your novel and what type of novel it is. For instance, most mysteries tend to have regular chapters, but often, the break is such that the reader doesn't want to put the book down. When left on a cliff-hanger, many (perhaps most) readers are compelled to start the next chapter, even if it goes to a different time, place, and characters, and read on to find out what happens to the characters or storyline.

It is an acceptable tactic to use chapter breaks to jar the reader (with a cliffhanger or to trick the reader or to keep the reader on her toes), but as the great writing teacher John Gardner always said, the goal of the writer is to avoid jarring the reader from the fictional dream. The author’s intent, particularly in genre fiction, is to suck the reader into the book’s world so completely that the real world is shut out, and the experience of the book is all that matters. Jarring the reader out of that state can be detrimental; the reader may toss the book across the room, never pick it up again, or even start a bad word-of-mouth, none of which is good for the future of your book.

Some authors make all their chapters basically the same length. Others structure the chapters based on events or on a day’s reckoning. Still other authors are known for varying chapter length and dropping in a quick action scene or some portent scene of foreboding in as little as a page or two. Using breaks for effect can be extremely useful in terms of creating excitement and exhilaration, particularly in genre fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, drama, action-adventure, sci-fi, etc.). Many thriller and sci-fi authors do this regularly, and the reader expects it.

Chapter or scene breaks may help a writer structure her novel. By figuring out where to insert those breaks, one can more easily categorize and even outline what happened in each of those units. Chapter breaks can make the actual writing easier. Block says, "One function of chapters is that they reduce the book in the writer’s own eyes to manageable dimensions… you may find it easier to imagine yourself writing a three or four or five thousand-word chapter than a full-length novel. By parceling your book into such bite-sized portions, the task of writing it may seem within your abilities" (p. 156).

Chapter breaks (or at least scene breaks) are useful, if not downright necessary, any time the author is shifting gears into a new point of view, a different time, or into the lives of new characters. Using chapters will fulfill the original goal of breaking up text in a logical, coherent way to enhance the reading experience.

I believe in using chapter breaks. They help me, the author, figure out what I’m doing. They convey to readers that the author has a plan in mind and that the reader is not being dragged willy-nilly over land and sea. The key thing, though, is to be conscious of a plan and to follow that plan, ensuring that the breaks have an internal logic which, even though not entirely apparent upon first glance, can be discerned upon further study. Of course, readers who are wrapped up in the "fictional dream" don't usually notice structure issues; they just enjoy the flow of the book.

And flow should be the main focus for how you use breaks in your novel. You should do what needs to be done to make the book flow appropriately. If you want to surprise or shatter the nerves of your reader, chapters can be used to great effect. If you want to segue from one area or character or time, chapters, parts, or scene breaks could be used. I consider breaks critical when there is a major shift in place, time, or character, but sometimes a chapter can encompass several scenes, broken up within, if there are only minor shifts.

Nobody likes to start a chapter, read two pages, then stop and start again. Chapters are a signal that there is some sort of shift – or that the reader needs to reorient him or herself. Who wants to reorient every 5 minutes? Remember, the ultimate purpose of breaks in a manuscript is to structure the text in a logical, coherent way to enhance the reading experience. Is that happening in your manuscript? If not, how does one find a balance?

How Do You Decide on the Perfect Breaks?

Many writers have a natural feel for when it’s time to end a chapter and start a new one. Still, the decisions you make unconsciously in early drafts should always be deliberated when you revise and edit. Once your novel is complete in draft form, work your way through it and do a fast outline, noting where all breaks and chapters are. For instance, it might look something like this:

Chapter 1
Fight Scene—Ella’s POV

Chapter 2
Police Station—Michael’s POV
Hospital—Jordan’s POV

Chapter 3
Hospital—Ella’s POV
Hospital—Michael’s POV
Hospital—Jordan’s POV

Chapter 4
2002 Back story—Michael’s POV
Day 2—Michael’s POV
1999 Back story—Ella’s POV

…and so on. When you have laid out the chapters and given a descriptive line for each scene, you can check over the flow, carefully reading the endings of one scene and the beginnings of the next scene. Perhaps you’ll decide that the four hospital scenes (above) in Chapters 2 and 3 ought to be in one chapter. Or maybe the four scenes at the hospital should have their own chapters. You may even discover that scenes could be switched or combined for better effect. Until you thoroughly examine what you have, you won’t know.

Another thing you can do is take your favorite books, particularly those that seem in some way similar to yours, and examine them. How did that author break up the story? Are the chapters titled? All basically the same length? Have cliffhangers? You can use that information to figure out how you want to break up your own work.

The information given to you by first readers and "beta" readers can be invaluable. Share the completed draft and ask readers to indicate where the flow is impeded. Ask them to note when the narrative and events seem to go on too long; where changes in perspective interrupt the scene; where segues seem too abrupt; and what their opinions are about how chapters and breaks should be inserted.

From the Publisher’s Point of View

Once you have completed your manuscript draft, it is a good idea to consider the format of your book through the eyes of a publisher. If you plan to submit to a particular press, take a look at their books and see whether they tend to use a standard chapter and scene break style. You might increase your chances of publication by formatting your submission in the style of that press. If you’re writing a love story, for instance, you’ll have more luck selling the book to a romance press if your book is structured similarly to the romance house style. If you’re writing a literary tour-de-force, consider how closely your chapter and scene breaks adhere to other literature like yours.

If you write long chapters, a publisher may pay no attention, but if you write a book full of very short chapters, a problem arises that you may have never considered. Let’s say you’ve written an 88-chapter Star Trek-like narrative, complete with chapters containing frequent Personal and/or Ship’s Logs (i.e. Star Date 2215, Captain Janeway’s Personal Log). Each of those log entries takes up two or three pages, and they rotate with longer chapters that describe action, relationships, confrontations, and ship activities.

In most standard novels, chapters (and parts) begin on the right-hand page, usually with a blank left-hand page. Every time you have a short chapter, the publisher may have to insert extra blank pages to balance this out. Books are priced based on how much paper and ink is used, and if your novel contains too many chapters, which forces the press to add blank pages, it will increase the cost of the book and raise the cover price. For a debut author, price can make or break the success of the book, and publishers know this.

The bottom line is that if you choose to do something unusual or nonstandard with your book’s chapter or scene break structure, it can affect the book’s marketability and therefore keep it from being published.

In Conclusion

I wish I could offer an extensive list of helpful books about this topic or, at the very least, some Internet links, but I haven’t found any books or sites with more than passing comments. Despite the fact that little is written about this issue, it is an important one that each writer should consider carefully.
© Lori L. Lake, 2004
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. If you have questions, comments, or divergent points of view, please drop Lori an email at Lori welcomes questions and comments.

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